Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category
It doesn’t take much for my brain to ruin things for me. A brief chat yesterday about rays, manta or otherwise, left me paranoid. Up at 5.45, shorts on, grab a towel, and out to beach. I took my specs off and went to the water for a swim. Without my specs, though, I’m relatively blind. After a wee swim, I settled down, crouching in the water so that all but my head was underwater. Is that-? That shape-? Is that shape? No, it’s not. Yes, it is! That’s a ray hiding in the sand! Don’t be stupid, Craig. Of course it’s not, you’re just being paranoid. But what if it is? You don’t have travel insurance. And aside from the cost, being stung would very literally be a pain.
I’ve already got loads of bug bites. I think they are sand fly bites. People here call them “no-see-ems” because, obvs, you don’t see them, just feel the aftermath of their lunching on your body. Despite lacquering myself with DEET at least a couple of times a day, the lower half of my legs are a galaxy of red bites. I can see the Plough! There’s Orion! I get paranoid, too, that all this DEET is gonna strip the skin away, then the muscle, then the bone will start to bubble and melt like cheese on top of a pizza. I’ll go to sleep feeling fine, and wake up, try to get out of bed and fall on my arse because all my legs have disappeared because of the DEET. I got some on my lip this morning – just touched my lip ever so briefly – and the horrible bitter chemical taste stuck around for a few minutes. Obviously, it is now eroding my tongue and throat.
Whilst I was swimming, a guy walked along the beach. He stopped and yelled, “you wanna buy a wood carving?” I realise you wanna sell stuff to gringos, dude, but there’s a time and a place. You can safely bet I don’t have my wallet with me when I’m doing breast stroke in the sea at six in the morning.
It’s really nice being awake early in Placencia. For one thing, it’s the coolest time of the day. There are fewer people around; the grackles and dogs are up and about, looking for food. There’s the pleasant sound of hotel employees raking the sand on the beach. And as you walk around, you are duty bound to engage in the Belizean hobby of saying hello to everyone. This is something I find fascinating. It’s obviously not a distinctly Belizean thing that people say hello, but I don’t go to many places where it does happen. Walks in the English countryside produce a lot of hellos and good mornings. And walking anywhere in Belize does, too. I like the different types. I tend to go for one of two things: a “good morning” before noon, and a “hi” after noon. Some men will do a proper hello, others will mutter, some will just raise their hand in a lazy wave, others will just make some vague noise that is the Belizean phrase for “fucking tourists…” Women, I have found, engage in this behaviour less. Whether it’s just that they don’t say good morning to male tourists, I don’t know. My fellow visitors mostly seem happy to do it. The older ones, anyway. Younger people don’t seem that arsed and this stuff.
An adorable child in school uniform asked, “do you know what time is it?” “Is it,” not “it is.” I told her, and as I continued my walk, I could heard her repeating the time quietly over and over.
Everywhere in Placencia smells of paint. The tourist season doesn’t start here for another week or so, so there are still lots of places doing renovations ready for it all to kick in again.
I had coffee at Above Grounds. It’s a building on stilts. And they sell coffee. Another coffee shop in Placencia is called Brewed Awakenings. Puns all around. Above Grounds is nice. They were playing the Stone Roses when I arrived. And the owner is a friendly Scot who was happy to chat for a while on the verandah looking out over the main street.
Here are some highlights of a conversation about a Harley Davidson that two Americans had at the coffee shop:
That your beast? (it was)
That’s a sexy bike (it was nice, sure, but not sure if I’d describe it as sexy)
I thought yours was black (no, it’s grey)
It’s like a gun smoke pearl (no, it’s grey)
I painting my Mustang like that (grey, then)
You can tell from the angle of the dangle (no idea what he was referring to)
I went to a laundry place. Just a hole in a wooden shack with a shutter opened. Nobody was inside but there was a buzzer. I pressed it. Nothing. I pressed it again and waited. I heard a toilet flush. Then a shifty-eyed guy came out, he didn’t say anything. I asked if I could get some washing done and if so, would it be ready today? He rubbed his face, looked everywhere but at me, and half-mumbled, “yeah.” I told him I’d be back with my washing and then went to a different place to get my laundry done.
Back at Barefoot Bar in the late morning. Ordered a beer. Was passed a beer. Took a sip. Water. That tastes like water. It Is water. (Budweiser joke goes here.) I tell the barmaid. She tastes it, shows it to other people like I’d found the elixir of life in their fridge.
Had a brief exchange with a guy. He was from Oregon. I asked where. Eugene. “Aah, the Emeralds!” I replied. He seemed incredibly unimpressed that a British person would know the name of a minor league baseball team in his home town, and just asked where I was from. I told him Lincoln. He shouted, “Yorkshire!” I corrected him. He shouted “Yorkshire!” again.
I sat at the bar and made a decision to not multi-task. If I was smoking, I not also be looking at Twitter or reading my book. I put the cigarette in the ashtray when I took a sip of beer. I put the beer back down, took a drag, then put the cigarette back in the ashtray while I wrote these words. It was difficult to do. I only managed doing it for ten minutes or so before the modern trained brain kicked in and I got back to doing several things at once.
The very friendly barmaid, Mel, asked what I was “doing on that thing” all the time. I told her I was looking at Twitter. I felt ashamed and ordered a shot of their homemade bitters.
Just like the night before, there was power cut around dusk. It was a perfect excuse to get away from the terrible bore I was sat next to (that is: a conservative Republican who wouldn’t stop yakking). Had a wander down to the end of the peninsula to Mojo Lounge. A lovely little restaurant on the first floor, overlooking the street. I wasn’t overly hungry, but had some wonderful jalapeño poppers. It was moderately busy, but one of the nice things was, that as a solo diner, I wasn’t just shoved off in the corner somewhere. Didn’t feel like I was taking up space at a table for four. While I was there, the staff brought small glasses of some cocktail to everyone for free. White, dark, and coconut rums with orange and mango.
By that time, the booze was catching up with me. I wandered back to the hotel, lay on the bed, and was asleep before 8pm.
My first non-travel day. I was clearly on holiday for the first two days, but with all the moving around, planes, buses and water taxis, I can’t say I was properly relaxed. There was a point at the beach bar, where I just sighed and could feel the travelling drift away.
I woke at 6am. Well, I woke at 2am first and considered that it was too early to get up, so went back to sleep. At 5am, I woke up and heard the rain on the trees and roofs (shouldn’t that be rooves?). At six, the rain had stopped. I put on last night’s tshirt and decided not to shower: there was a big ass Caribbean Sea just 20 feet or so from my room.
There were only a people on the beach. A gringo woman having a walk, a couple of local chaps jogging, another dude having a slow walk. He stopped to talk. Ordinarily, I’d’ve happily chatted, but I kept my answers short. It was 6am, dammit, nobody goes to the beach at that time for a chat. I was there to just let my eyes relax, watch the early morning sun behind the clouds, and empty my brain. I rolled a cigarette. The guy continued his walk. And I stood with my feet in the warm clear calm water. A shark! Oh my- oh, no, it’s a dolphin. Hola, Flipper! He went under the water then resurfaced a bit further along. He did that three or four times. He must’ve realised I put my camera away, cos that’s when he leapt out of the water, doing that dolphiny thing. I audibly “wow”-ed. I’d never seen that not-on-telly before.
I had a swim. One of the big regrets in my life is having let my interest in swimming drift away. I was alright at it when I was a kid (bronze medal 50 metres freestyle Lincoln Pentaqua swimming club, yo). As with the boy scouts, it somehow got away from me in my teens. I swam for a bit, then just crouched in the shallow water for a while. I find it difficult to relax in general, but there, in the water, without my spectacles, or a device that could link to the Internet, I felt relatively relaxed.
Coffee and breakfast (a relatively boring omelette), and I was ready for the day. And as luck would have it, it was a couple of minutes to eleven, so I went to the bar, had a few stouts, sat around and watched the local expats congregate. I get the feeling that retiring to Belize would be terrible for your liver.
Realising I’d spent most of my awake time in Placencia at same bar, I decided to check out another bar. Yoli’s is a thatched kinda palapa thing on stilts over the water on the southern end of the peninsular. A good twenty minute saunter away. Exercise! I walked past the football field one corner of the field had a backstop for playing baseball. When I was here in 2012, there were kids playing baseball. Now, home plate is the only patch of dirt that remains. (Later, I asked someone about it, and they said girls used to play softball but not anymore because, he said, “they got fat.”)
Sometimes you have a brief interaction with a stranger that reminds you that humans are, fundamentally, good. A brief interaction that makes you and the other party smile. I was walking down a dirt track towards Yoli’s and an older couple in a golf cart (a popular mode of transport here) pulled up alongside me and asked if they could give me a lift. I told them that, thanks, it’s not necessary, cos I’m just going to Yoli’s, a few yards away. I told the guy I liked his accent (Texas) and he said the same about mine and asked where in England I was from. “Lincoln.” I explained in vague geographical terms where it was and dropped the tedious “joke” I always tend to tell Americans: we leant our name to one of your presidents. He laughed and said, well, being American, I guess we just stole it. We all laughed, said goodbye and wished each other a good day.
At Yoli’s, there was just one customer and a barman. They were chatting. As I walked up the steps, the customer shouted, “Liverpool!” referring to my LFC shirt. He was a Londoner, a Chelsea fan. Worked in computers. Moved around all over the world. One of those people who was kinda vague about his work and method of supporting his lifestyle. Nice bloke, though.
A huge silver-fronted black shelf of cloud was covering the peninsula as I left Yoli’s. Time for food. I walked back along the Sidewalk, and felt a drop of rain. A full ten seconds later, I was drenched. It was like the heavens was water cannoning me. I did what I could to protect my iPod and wallet from turning to mush, covering them with my hand inside my pocket. I nipped into Barefoot Bar to escape the rain. Had a beer and a moment or two later, the power went off. And it stayed off in the village for over an hour. At least that meant the shitty light inoffensive beach-y reggae was off, too.
It got dark, and I was sat there in my sunglasses, hoping it’d stop raining soon so I could go and put on my regular specs. There are few minor niggles I hate more than wearing my sunglasses when it gets dark. A soaked German guy came in and sat beside me. He asked what beer is good. I told him the choices are pretty limited. It’s Belikin or Belikin stout unless you wanna fork out for imported Heineken. He was a tour operated based in Berlin. He’d spent the last month going around Central America checking out places to bring German tourists next year. Seems like the best job in the world, that. He chugged his beer down, said goodbye and was soon replaced by an American drinking rum and Fanta.
Hungry, I went to a Chinese restaurant called Dragonfly Moon. There are lots of Chinese people in Belize, and lots of Chinese restaurants. To be honest, the Chinese food I’ve had in Belize before has been pretty ropey. Big plates of sodium. Dragonfly Moon was great, though. I ordered a cheap boring dish (chicken fried rice) not really wanting to spend a lot of money on crappy food, but it was delicious. No need to smother it in hot sauce or soy sauce. Fresh with loads of tasty vegetables.
Back at the hotel, my neighbours were watching telly. Loud telly. As often seems to be the case, the telly in the next room in any hotel seems to be showing some sort of car chase. But if Belizean telly is anything like Mexican telly, there is always one of the Fast and Furious films on one of the channels at any given time. In Mexico, it always seems to be the one set in Rio de Janeiro. I’ve seen that so many times, just because I can’t be arsed to search for anything else to watch. Earlier at the bar, the rum and Fanta dude was joined by a couple of women. They were chatting away about various things, and Vin Diesel came up. Both of the women agreed: they preferred The Rock.
A good solid eight hours sleep, up at 5.15am to get the 6.15am bus. Shower, dressed, sweating virtually from the off. It’s good being a hot-blooded English human when I’m in cold countries, but as soon as I get to somewhere humid, it kills me and any pretence I have that I might look good. How can you look good when your shirt is sweaty from the moment you wake up?
The buses in Belize are great. If you are child-size. They are yer actual genuine Blue Bird buses. The American school buses that you know well if you are American, and know from films and telly if you are not American. At Corozal, there were about ten of us on the bus. On the way out of town, it stopped every few hundred yards to pick up more people. It was frustratingly slow, by normal life standards, but I am on holiday, so not too much of a worry. After leaving Corozal, the bus kept stopping, but less frequently. Where roads from villages met the main highway, there would be people waiting or getting off. As we got close to Orange Walk, one of Belize’s bigger towns, the bus was full of children going to school. At Orange Walk, a couple of Mennonite dudes got on. Long trousers, long shirts, long beards, tall wide-brimmed hats. One of them was drinking a Coke. It seemed odd to see that (says the ill-informed blogger).
I listened to Coldplay. Yes, I know. But ever since my travels in 2008, I always associate bus travel with listening to and enjoying their music. I do it now almost of out of habit. It’s comforting somehow.
Some of the people who got on the bus at 6.15 in Corozal were still on the bus as we entered Belize City, three hours later. And judging by their business attire, they must work there. A six hour round trip to work every day.
At the Belize City bus station, I got off the bus and onto the bus right next to it, to head further south. The bus was already fairly full, and I sat in an aisle seat. Ordinarily, I like window seats, cos, y’know, the view. But on these tiny school buses, an aisle seat wasn’t so bad. I could stretch one leg. The woman in front of me was reading a Kindle. Over her shoulder it was something that featured characters called Aubrey and Max. A beach house was mentioned too.
I listened to some of an audio book. Somewhere along the way, I lost the physical copy of In Patagonia by Bruce a couple of years ago before I’d had chance to read it. And because I’d already bought it, I didn’t feel guilty recently, when I torrented the audio book. I’m about half way through. I wanted to read/hear it because, well, I still dream of being a travel writer, and this is one of the books that’s always mentioned amongst the best of the genre. To be perfectly honest, so far, it doesn’t seem as great as I assumed it would be. I mean, it’s enjoyable for sure, but it’s not blowing me away.
The highway system in Belize is minimal. There’s one from the north, via Orange Walk, to Belize City. Another that goes west towards Guatemala, and another than goes from the capital, Belmopan (about halfway along the western highway) east and towards Dangriga, then south to Punta Gorda. I was on the bus that stopped at Belmopan. It emptied and filled up again with passengers and we kept on truckin’ towards Dangriga, where the landscape changed from flat to a bit hilly. Lovely jungle-y stuff going on on either side, which allowed me to ignore the guy who kept falling asleep on my shoulder.
An oldish guy across the aisle with a Milwaukee Brewers cap and a splendid moustache was chatting with anyone who would listen. At one stop, he stood up, went to the door, and chucked his empty Coke bottle onto the grass verge. So *that’s* why there’s so much trash in Belize…
A woman and her two sons sat down on the seat in front of me. The kids spent a lot of time staring at me. I crossed my eyes at one of them. He hid his head. Then looked up again. I crossed one eye (it’s a talent, y’know). He hid again and looked a bit scared. I did it again and smiled. Nope, even smiling doesn’t work. But it did stop him staring at me, so one-nil Craig.
I’d not had a piss since 6am. As we left Dangriga, at 12.15pm, I realised that I really should’ve used the five minutes that we were stopped there to have a wee. Still another hour and a half to go. I saw road signs that told me we were getting closer. It was good to know. We pulled into the new bus station at Independence (a bit further out of town than the old one; taxi drivers rejoice). I got in a cab and took the five dollar ride to the Hokey Pokey water taxi station. Joy: a good long piss.
Relieved, I went to buy the US$5 ticket for the water taxi to Placencia and as luck would have it, the TV in the cage above the ticket window was showing the second half of the Liverpool v Real Madrid game. As luck wouldn’t have it, Real were 3-0 up and looking like they could’ve utterly crushed Liverpool had they been bothered about doing so.
In the water taxi, I sat behind a couple of Dutch guys who were talking as loudly as people talk when they realise nobody understands what they are saying. They were both in their mid-forties, ie. my age, but they were dressed in that mid-forties way that is best described as Borisbeckerian. Spiked and gelled hair. Earrings. Ill-advised tribal tattoos under flamboyant shirts. Sporty shades.
Ten minutes of water taxiing (a joy, actually: across the lagoon, loads of birds and mangrove) and I take a slow sweaty stroll along the Sidewalk (referred to as a road, but actually, it’s just a concrete path raised an inch or two above the sand), to the hotel that I booked at the border the day before.
I checked in, had a shower, a couple of glugs of mezcal from my hip flask, then went out to the Barefoot Bar, a beach bar, a short walk along the beach from the hotel. I drank Belikin stout and chatted with the older couple at the next table. They were retired hospital workers from Wheatland, Wyoming who bought a house down here. They seemed genuinely happy to be living in Belize for seven months a year. They thought I was nuts for living in Mexico City. I googled Wheatland, Wyoming. It has a population of 3,627. It makes sense that Wheatland natives would think living in DF was nuts.
A band started up. Just a guy with a guitar, singing, and his mate playing a bongo and a cymbal. They started up with a cover of With or Without You. They said they had a spare bass and harmonica if anyone wanted to join their “fun” and “funky” “jam session.” Without needing to be asked twice, I stepped up to the plate, grabbed the bass guitar and sang a few Police songs. The locals clapped. The ovation lasted for several minutes. I went back to my beer. Men wanted to shake my hand, woman wanted to shake other bits of me.
Obviously, that’s not what happened. They played Eagles, Pretenders, Bob Marley covers. Enough was enough. I paid up and went back to the hotel. I could hear the jammers jamming from my room. Black Hole Sun. I watched a good twenty minutes of Children of Men on my iPad and fell asleep before 9pm. I kinda like how Belize does that to me. I wake up dead early and go to bed dead early too.
You always worry when you’ve got an early flight. You have to wake up earlier than normal, so you try to go to bed earlier than normal. That last bit never works. I was in bed at 9pm, but didn’t sleep til gone 11. And that worrying about missing a flight is never necessary. I’d set my alarm for 3am, but woke up naturally at 2.58am. I gave myself an hour before the taxi was due. Again, though, that was unnecessary. You only need an hour to get ready if you are unprepared and like to hit the snooze button. The snooze button is something I haven’t used since I was in my twenties. If I need to get up, I get up.
Buzzer / yes? / taxi / I’ll be right down / goodbye to girlfriend / in taxi / empty roads / pay / receipt / check in / last smoke / security / wait / plane.
The guy sat in front of me snored like a bastard. He sounded like he was trying to snort gravel through a straw.
An expensive taxi from Chetumal airport to the border and there I am, ready to do my favourite thing in the world: cross an international border on foot. At the Mexico side of the border, you have to pay 300 pesos to leave. Paid the money, gracias, then walked over the bridge above the river at separates Mexico and Belize.
The first time I made this journey, two years ago, I was naive, and got a 15 US dollar taxi. On subsequent trips, I’ve not been stupid. There are small buses, like VW van-size, that charge two or three Belizean dollars (US$1=BZ$2). It’s a ten minute walk from the bridge to immigration on the Belize side. A guy in a van pulled up alongside and told me it was three dollars to go to Corozal, my destination, about ten miles or so away. Sweet. I gave him the dollars, he drove me to immigration, and said I’ll wait for you on the other side.
Immigration is a stand alone building that, until last year, was just a few wooden desk and some relaxed dudes with ink pads and a stamp. Now, though, those desks have perspex screens and cameras and the officers seem more uptight. Not sure if it’s true, but I’ve heard that the US government paid for the security upgrades.
The officer looked at my passport, asked why I had been in Mexico for so long. I told her. She asked where I was going in Belize. I told her. She asked if I had hotel reservations. I told her that, I had reservations for a couple of places, but not for a couple of others. She asked to see the reservations. I told her that I did them online and don’t have print outs. She asked about Placencia, a place where I didn’t have a reservation. Well, it’s not tourist season, so I figured I’d just arrive and find somewhere (this is something I like to do; arriving in a place and not knowing where you will sleep in kinda exciting.) She pushed my passport back through the hole and said, I can’t let you in if you don’t have somewhere to stay. I asked what I was supposed to do, she gave me a look, and turned away. Okay then, thanks for your help, ma’am.
Very very fortunately, there was a tourism desk at the entrance. I told the guy what had happened, and that I’d previously stayed at Sea Spray and One World in Placencia, so maybe I could try one of those. He looked at his screen, went to the Sea Spray website and used his own private cell phone to call them. Yes, they have vacancies (obvs). I spoke to someone on the phone, who was nice and friendly, telling me the difference between the rooms (prices, A/C, telly, sea view, etc). This was all fine, but just gimme a room. I told her my credit card details, and gave the phone back to the tourism dude. I heard his end of the convo. He told her that, yes, I think we have a fax machine. Pause. Well, if you can do it soon, because this gentleman is waiting to get into the country. When he ended the call, he said that she said that she would fax confirmation in 15 minutes.
15 minutes is a long time when you are in limbo. I went outside for a smoke. It was humid. I was sweating. I went back inside and chatted with the tourism guy. He was called Bernard. He asked where I was in Mexico. When I told him, he looked at me like I was nuts to live somewhere like DF. We chatted about our lives, his ex-wife, my girlfriend, his job, my job. All in all, he was the perfect person to be stuck dealing with this situation. Laid back and friendly.
After 20 minutes, the fax came through. I shook Bernard’s hand, thanked him for being so helpful, and went back to the immigration desk. By this time, a different person was there. A man about my age. I told him that his colleague had insisted I have a hotel in Placencia. He didn’t even look at the fax. He asked how long I’d be in Belize, then stamped my passport and wished me a good stay. Obviously, the three dollar bus guy had gone by the time I left immigration.
In Corozal I stayed, again, at the Sea Breeze Hotel. It’s my third time there. It’s cheap, basic, but I like it. The owner is a Welsh former roadie. He’s got plenty of tales to tell, which, depending on how he feels about you, he seems willing to tell after a couple of beers. If this hotel was on the Gordon Ramsay show Hotel Hell, it’d be fun to see who would punch who first. The problem, though, with watching that show is it kinda makes you paranoid about every hotel.
After a quick shower, I borrowed one of the hotel bicycles and went for some breakfast. Went to Al’s Cafe, a place I’d not been before, but had seen recommended on a blog about Belize. Eleven o’clock, though, was too late for breakfast. I had lunch. Rice, beans, stewed chicken. Average.
While I was eating, this guy came and sat next to me. He kinda looked like a curly-haired version of Neymar. Handsome chap. He started his pitch. He carves wood. He showed me his hands. They looked like he carves wood. He told me he’s not a bad guy, not begging for money. He told me he didn’t ask me for money when he saw me ten minutes earlier, so “you know I’m not just a beggar.” Then he asked me for money. Just a couple of dollar so that he can get the bus to Belize City, so he can sell his carvings to the people getting off cruise ships. I didn’t give him money.
Next stop was Primos’, a bar near the water in the south of the town. When I say that, you probably think I went a decent way on the bicycle, but no, it’s a small town, and it was only a few minutes on the bike. Like a lot of Belizean buildings, it was wood. Open sides. Loads of flags hanging from the roof: Belize, USA, Mexico, Canada, Panama, Honduras. Pretty much all North and Central America represented. Tiny white ants ran across the bar. A Canadian woman sat near me played whack-a-mole with them. Killing ants with her thumb. Here, there, here, there. She had quite the task. I talked to her male companion. A bug eyed man (he had beautiful blue eyes, actually) with a nicotine stained moustache. We chatted about life. He told me they’d been in Belize for four months, yet he spoke with all the weariness of someone who had lived here for decades. He was from that part of Canada where they frack. He told me that a few shitty companies have ruined fracking’s reputation for everyone. If done responsibly, he said, it’s not dangerous. But, of course, this is a man who has retired in his fifties after fracking for twenty-odd years, so I’m inclined to feel he has an interest in fracking’s reputation.
As mentioned above, this was my third time in Corozal. The first time I was there, the best food I had was at a place in the centre of town called Purple Toucan. The next time I visited, Purple Toucan had closed and the delightful Mexican-Belizean couple who owned it had moved their restaurant to their own home, about a fifteen minute bike ride into the countryside away. It was renamed Tucan Mexicana. I took the bike in the midday sun and sweated my way out there. It was closed. And looked like it wasn’t functioning anymore. None of the seating and tables were outside the front. In their place, just the concrete ground and several loud barking dogs. Belize is always the same, but always different.
I returned to Primos’. Club sandwich and another Belikin. Fun fact: Belikin beer has had a redesign. And as with most redesigns, it’s not as nice as it was before. I was tired and a bit sleepy. I returned to the hotel, had a lie down, but my brain stopped me from having a nap. I watched the Barcelona-Ajax game for a bit, and then went out for supplies: water and custard cream biscuits.
I got stuck back into the Belikins at the hotel. The owner was sick. He had food poisoning. I sat alone in the bar, marking down the beers I drank. He came out occasionally, groaning about his dodgy tummy and arse. I flicked through the channels on the telly, and eventually found a channel showing game one of the World Series and spend the next couple of hours participating in the NotGraphs live chat.
When my iPad battery died, I retired to my room and watched about ten minutes of the remaining innings before falling asleep.
Don’t let the title of this blog post put you off, non-baseball lovers.
I wrote a post for top baseball site NotGraphs about this very subject, but, between you and me, *stage whisper* it’s hardly about baseball at all. It’s most about being in a different city. Travel writing, I guess.
I’ve been saving this blog post. I wrote it today. But I’ve been saving writing it. I had this idea, you see, to write a blog post, but really late. And see how much I could write about something I did without it being fresh in my mind. It was something I thought about doing maybe a couple of months after the event, but it’s been over two years. I went to Africam Safari on the 29th day of April, 2012. I went there with an ex-girlfriend, but that’s incidental. I’m not going to mention her by name or anything, but I might use the first person plural. Just so you know, really, that I’m not using the royal we. (Here, though, I would like to plant an image in your head: Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Charles playing bowling on the Wii.) So, yes, it’s an experiment. I’ve inserted photographs, but I didn’t look at them before writing, cos that’d kinda defeat the object of trying to remember stuff, so I looked at them and picked a few and inserted them after doing the whole type-y typing thing.
Africam Safari is, as the name telegraphs, a safari park. It also hints at the presence of African animals, doesn’t it? But, and this is the one part of the blog that I had written down in the Notes app on my iPod as a reminder to blog about it: Africam Safari is the worst place in the world.
Now, of course, that’s not strictly true. Although, “worst” is a subjective word, just as “best” is when saying “Justin Bieber is the best thing ever.” And while we were at the Africam Safari, I wrote in the Notes app on my iPod, “Africam Safari is the worst place in the world.”
We’d gone to Puebla for the weekend. Puebla is a town not too far from Mexico City. It’s quite nice. I’ve been several times. That trip was based around my desire to see my favourite Mexican baseball team, Diablos Rojos, playing against the Puebla team, the Pericos. We saw two games. And on our third and final day in the city, decided to get a bus to Africam Safari, which is about 15 km southeast of the city.
I don’t remember a huge amount about the journey. Just that there was a VW Golf on the side of the road covered in hats. I remember that because I took a photo of it. And that the pedestrian crossing near the entrance to Africam Safari was done like a yellow-on-black zebra pattern.
There was a greenhouse thingy with lizards, spiders, and butterflies, but the main thing was that you could drive around and see the animals up close. Lots of people were doing that in their cars, but we took the small bus. We sat at the back, looking through the dirty windows at magnificent, bored animals. It was hot and dusty in there. There were patterns, like logos and stuff, on the windows. What is the point of that? I have a problem with buses having decals on windows anyway. Nobody takes a bus because it’s their first choice. People take buses out of financial necessity for the most part. Why make that journey crappy by making their eyes go funny when are looking at things outside but they’ve got a dotty pattern that they have to look through and inadvertently keep focussing on? It seems even more stupid when the entire point of the bus, (that is, the bus at Africam Safari) is to allow punters to see things that are outside.
We moved slowly around the snaking roads. Passing zebras, parrots, gazelles, rhinos, elephants, ostriches (or maybe they were emus, I can’t remember), boars, and those cows with the really point horns that look like ice cream cones. It was like being in a traffic jam. Just with extra tigers.
Halfway around, we were instructed to get out. The tour guide fella dressed it up as a drink/snack/toilet break, but really it was just so that we’d spend some time and money in the souvenir shop. A souvenir shop that had some dodgy dolls that, in a safari park in Mexico, could quite easily be taken as a bit racist. We bought ice creams.
Even though I know in my heart that zoos are kinda wrong, I still enjoy being at zoos. But not Africam Safari. That place was shit. I was in a right grumpy mood by the time we left.
I can’t remember much more than that, really. Which is disappointing. As you were.
I flew back from London on Wednesday. British Airways. Decent enough airline. Departing from Heathrow Terminal 5, which as airport terminals go is pretty good. It’s a post-11th September 2001 airport, it anticipates all the security stuff, and it’s relatively painless.
Going through the departure lounge, I went into World of Whisky and spent a decent chunk of money on a good bottle for my girlfriend’s father. It was nice to feel like a proper adult human being: not saying, “I’m fine, thanks” when an assistant asks if I wanted any help, instead asking if I could taste the whisky I was interested in. Delicious stuff. 16 year old Balvenie. Credit card and boarding pass out.
Before I went through security, I had a look in the newsagent/sweets/water/books shop and saw they had a buy-one-get-one-half-price thing going on. Saw a book I wanted. But not a second book so that I could take advantage of the offer. I’ll try the one in the departure lounge, I thought. Had a look, saw a second book! Yay. Now where is the first one I was interested in? They didn’t have it. I checked the final WH Smith after the wee ride on the shuttle train thingy. Their selection of books was crappy. Bummer. No new books for me. So I bought some Rowntree’s Fruit Gums to eat on the plane. Gave the dude the cash and he wanted to see my boarding pass. Why is that? It’s a packet of sweets. It’s not duty free fags or aftershave. Just some fruit gums. Why does he need my boarding pass. Anyway, the argument I was having with him in my head ended quickly, I said thank you, and went to the Starbucks where THEY SELL BEER. So I had a Peroni rather than a cappuccino. I listened to a podcast about football. Then realised I’d lost my boarding pass. Went to the desk. The nice woman there printed me off a new one. I waited and allowed myself to imagine that Aston Villa would beat Manchester City while I was in the sky.
Soon after they called all the rich fucks and people with kids to board. And then it was just like, “everyone else.” Not people in rows 180 to 225, etc. “Everyone else.” I’d chosen my seat online the day before. Window seat, front row of the cheap section. Needn’t have bothered, really. Of the ten front row seats in the section, only three were occupied. In fact, the plane was only about 20% full. It was lush. Nobody in the two seats next to me.
I got stuck into some Heinekens, took my shoes off, flipped up the telly screen thing. (BA planes, by the way, still have pretty crappy screens. Touchscreen, yes, but the sort of touchscreen where you really have to dig your finger in to choose something. I watched Anchorman 2. It was shit. (Apart from Kristen Wiig, who I seem to love in everything.) Two hours I’ll never get back, but I was on an aeroplane flying from Europe to North America, so it’s not like it was a real waste like if I’d’ve gone to the cinema or owt.
I had a go at the Lego Movie. Really enjoyed the first ten minutes, but soon figured that I’d rather watch it on a proper telly not on a tiny fuzzy aeroscreen. Gave some music a go. A few songs off the Ultravox greatest hits they inexplicably had on the system. I’d forgotten that Lament is a pretty nice song. Got the 7″ clear vinyl gatefold sleeve in a box somewhere at my Mum’s house. (Sorry, Mum.) Here is a link to a clip of them doing it on Top of the Pops. Here. Warning: Jimmy Savile introduces them in the clip. Listened to that recent Beyoncé album (good), and the Blood Orange album (alright). But I couldn’t stay focussed on one thing for too long. Had a wee flick at Sleepless in Seattle, a film I do rather love a lot, but couldn’t be arsed. Watched some of Her, which I’ve already seen, watched a bit of the Walter Mitty thing which I saw on the flight to London and enjoyed way more than I thought I would. Plus, y’know, Wiig’s in it. (Also note-worthy, cos of course, all of this blog post is scintillating stuff, I flew to London with Iberia. Now they have great screens. Totally modern. It’s like an iPad or somefink.)
I gave up on the telly and got a book out of my bag. “How I Escaped My Certain Fate” by Stewart Lee. I read and read and read and read. I read loads. It’s an enjoyable and funny book. I looked at the time, and we were over halfway to Mexico. Time flies when you’re enjoying a book. I pulled up the window flaps and there was the eastern coast of Quebec, looking snowy and pretty below.
The stewards and stewardesses seemed in good moods. One dude with nice specs kept asking if I wanted another beer. Yes please. I wonder if that job is actually fun. I mean, to me it looks like you’re a waiter in a crappy restaurant where people are constantly farting, wear ugly neck pillows, and take their shoes off.
Soon enough, just as the sky was starting to get dark, we were above Mexico City. I could see my neighbourhood as we got close to landing. As we queued to get off the plane (for a wee while cos the door wouldn’t open) a European guy lined up in the other aisle was chatting up a woman behind me. He asked where she was from. Veracruz. Are all women in Veracruz as pretty as you? She giggled.
Through immigration, I got my bag, and met my girlfriend outside. We exchanged hellos, hugged, etc. “What was the Man City score?” “4-0,” she said.
I spent a week in Corozal Town, in northern Belize, not far from the border with Mexico. It’s a pretty relaxing place. And I spent a lot of my time drawing.
This is where I stayed:
This is the owner of the hotel:
Here’s a few drawings of the early morning view of the bay:
Some of the view looking out from the hotel bar:
And some other stuff:
Self-portrait, watching the Everton-Liverpool game in my hotel room:
And a couple of locals:
Junction in Coyoacán, Mexico City
It was about $500 cheaper to fly British Airways from Cancún to London than from Mexico City to London, even when you factor in the extra domestic flights between Mexico City and Cancún. Even though I should’ve guessed, I wasn’t really expecting the flight to be so full of Brits. I’ve never before been to a foreign place where British people go on their holidays. Never been to Spain or the Greek islands or whatever, places where one would expect to be surrounded by my countrymen. And in Mexico, I rarely come across British people who aren’t at least a little bit like me: vaguely arty, intellectually curious, backpack-y types. During my four hour layover at Cancún International airport, I saw some of those, but mostly sun worshipping folk. This can’t help but sound snobby, but there were lots of people – and when I say people, I mean men – who looked like they would happily kick my head in. Lobster-coloured skin, ill-advised tattoos, football jerseys of shitty teams, pasty flabby skin around the skull with sad, angry eyes.
I wore a suit for my flight because, well, I wanted to feel like an adult. This seemed like a good decision when I was in my room in Mexico City. It seemed like a terrible decision when I was stood outside the airport terminal in Cancún smoking. And sweating. I am clearly British. Nobody in a Mexican airport is going to mistake me for a local, so to the handful of British tourists I glanced eye contact with, I was one of them, but untanned and not wearing a t-shirt and shorts and flip flops.
Things watched: Identity Theft which was, like Due Date, just a crappy version of Planes, Trains and Automobiles. I saw about half of The Mosquito Coast (fell asleep around the time the religious dude came to visit Harrison Ford’s village). Started watching that Seth Rogen and Barbra Streisand film, but it seemed terrible after ten minutes so I abandoned it in favour of Jack Reacher, which I enjoyed more than I assumed I would (and really, it’s the sort of film that’s perfect for watching on a plane: a movie I would never ever ever consider seeing in the cinema or renting or even, for that matter, downloading illegally). And as we came close to the British Isles, I noticed Crossfire Hurricane, the Rolling Stones documentary was there. The sky was getting light outside and we were getting close to Gatwick, so by the time the captain told us to not use headphones and stuff, I’d got as far as the Exile on Main St. era. Must make an effort to watch the rest of the film…
Coming back to the United Kingdom is a weird thing in my head. It is home, clearly. I am British. A friend of mine in D.F. recently commented, negatively, that I was “so European sometimes.” But I have found, over the last five years, that I half dread coming back. There’s a part of me that very much looks forward to it, but another part that is incredibly nervous. It is home, thus it has expectations in my head. Expectations it may fail to live up to. Or, possibly worse, expectations that will be exceeded. Last time I was back, at Christmas 2011, I had a wonderful time and was very sad to leave.
What seem like too romantic views of my home country kicked in very quickly. As the plane flew across the south coast, and the watery-milky clouds became fewer, there was the sight of all those green fields. Such a green and pleasant land. A greenness that is only really noticeable when you live in a orange and dusty part of the world. Cars driving on the, what I have come to believe since living the last third of my life outside of the UK, wrong side of the road.
The miserable fucker at the passport control immigration desk told me to stand in front of her desk, not at the side. I wonder if her job description is “be a humourless cunt to citizens of the same country”? Would it kill them to be, y’know, at least a tiny bit nice; to say “welcome home”? Within five minutes of being on home soil, I had already muttered to myself, “this is fucking bullshit.” Immediately after passing though passport control, there are display boards telling passengers which carousel their baggage will be at. A paperjam of people all looking at the name of their flight’s origin with WAIT next to it. It took 30 minutes for CANCUN WAIT to turn to CANCUN 2.
A friend picked me up from Gatwick and we came into the centre of town. Through Croydon, Thornton Heath, Streatham, Brixton… my old “manor,” really. I lived in south London for four years. It’s changed but it hasn’t changed. There are more money-lending places, more betting shops, more coffee places, but the faces are still the same.
I’m typing these words sat in a pub, the Green Man, in central London on Wednesday afternoon. I’ve been awake for over 24 hours now. The obvious things: it looks like a pub, not a bar. There aren’t meseros hovering around my every need. A pint of beer is nearly five fucking pounds. But the music is low in volume and there’s no television showing whatever football game is happening somewhere in the world. The same friend who thinks I’m “so European sometimes,” also thinks I’m an alcoholic. I don’t think that is the case: I just like drinking. And even though this pub is a vaguely fancy pub, it’s incredibly nice to have a pint glass in front of me and to hear English accents chatting away at the tables around me.
But this post will have to wait until later to be posted. This pub has free wifi, but you have to give them your mobile phone number to get some sort of code to give you access. They tell you it’s for security reasons. Not at all cos they want your data, oh no.
Overheard at the next table, no context: it was just a burger. No bun, no lettuce, no tahmaaah’er, no nuffink, just MEAT.
I began this drawing last September. Worked on it intermittently since then. Finally got it done. It’s a drawing of the centre of the lovely city of Oaxaca de Juárez.
Here’s a Google Maps screengrab with the streets I drew above highlighted in pink.
Eric and I have known each other electronically for about four years. He and his pal Ted used to run a Web site called Pitchers and Poets. It was a good thing. With me also having a baseball site, we ended up exchanging emails, all three of us. I was emailing my pal Pete about baseball a lot, too, and eventually, the streams crossed and we ended up having a four way email conversation about baseball and hot dogs and jumping frogs and, once in a while, Albuquerque.
Eric and his girlfriend Janelle moved to Mexico City in October. This was the first time we had met in person. Eric is a writer. He likes baseball. He lives in the same city as me. One day, we got to chatting about the Serie del Caribe (Caribbean Series, an annual baseball tournament held between the winners of the winter leagues in Mexico, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela). It’s held in one city from one of the four participating nations on a rotating basis, and this year it was Mexico’s turn, and would take place in Hermosillo, in the northern state of Sonora, about a three hour drive south of the Arizona border.
We both wanted to go. And because he writes about sports (amongst other things), and I often draw baseball-related stuff, it wasn’t a huge leap for us to come up with the idea of up pitching an idea to someone of he and I working together on a co-authored text and images thing about the series.
At the time, I’d recently done some infographics for a new Web site called Sports on Earth. So I emailed Emma Span, the editor I’d dealt with, explained our idea, and would they be interested.
They were. Hurrah. We noodled around for a while, didn’t get our shit together, and eventually started looking for flights, accommodation, and Emma got on the case regarding press credentials for us, even though the Serie del Caribe Web site clearly stated that the time for applications was over.
Hermosillo is a city of about 800,000 people the 20th largest city in the country. There only seemed to be a couple of flights from Mexico City that weren’t booked up, so they were a wee bit expensive. Accommodation proved to be an even bigger issue: we checked and checked and kept finding hotels fully booked for the whole week. We were essentially Mary and Joseph.
When we did come across a hotel with rooms, they were super expensive and only renting rooms for the whole week of the series. We were only gonna be there for four nights, but it looked we might have to stump up the cash for seven just to not end up sleeping under a cactus. With only about ten days to go, we had some good fortune: my friend Adria is from Hermosillo, and her mother was willing to rent out her spare rooms to us for the duration of our stay.
Getting press credentials seemed to be very Mexican in its organisation. I love this country, but it can be frustratingly inefficient at getting things done. Eric and I would be two of very very few gringo “journalists” at the Serie del Caribe. We were there for Sports on Earth, a site put together by USA Today and the media arm of Major League Baseball. A few days before we were due to fly, Emma mentioned that things had started to look a bit more promising. And the day before we left, she told us we should — should — have passes waiting for us at the ballpark. We got the name of a contact at the stadium to help us if needs be. Splendid.
Baseball is popular in Mexico. But only in certain parts of Mexico. Mexico City is one of the parts of the country where it is not particularly popular. We have a team in the summer league, but attendance isn’t great. And this city has three popular teams in the top flight of Mexican soccer. Very few of my friends knew that the Caribbean Series was happening in their country. At the departure gate, though, we saw baseball caps and jackets. People on our flight were going to Hermosillo, like us, to watch baseball.
A couple of hours in the sky, and we were walking through an airport where even more people were dressed in baseball garb. People stood around, waiting for luggage, waiting for rental cars, in hats and jerseys of Mexican, Venezuelan, Dominican, Puerto Rican, and American teams. We had flown from Ciudad de Fútbol to Ciudad de Béisbol.
Hermosillo may well be small compared to Mexico City, but it’s also big. Very few buildings have more than a ground floor. In fact, the only time we had to climb or descend more than a short flight of stairs was when we had to go up to the press box* at Estadio Sonora, the baseball stadium. And because of this, the city sprawls in the desert fairly significantly. It was a long taxi ride from the airport to where we were staying. A taxi ride that had the driver on his cell phone several times talking to a colleague, asking where exactly the place we were staying is.
* I’ve been in press boxes at baseball stadiums before. Once legitimately, and a few times on stadium tours. The Estadio Sonora had a press box where one would expect, up and above home plate, but because the Caribbean Series had way more press members than would be there for future games at the park (the stadium is brand new and will be the home of the local Liga Pacifico team, los Naranjeros de Hermosillo, the Hermosillo Orange Growers), it had been extended to include a long row of high tables and chairs around the top edge of that level of the stands.
The house we stayed at was lovely. Our host, Carmen, was really friendly and a great cook. And there was a terrace which was a great place to spend the mornings, drinking coffee and working on drawings while hummingbirds darted back and forth to the feeders hanging from the roof. After a chicken lunch (pretty much our only non-cow meal of our time there) we were back in a taxi heading back across to the other side of town to the ballpark.
As mentioned, this park is new. Up until the end of the Liga Pacifico season a few weeks ago, the city’s ballpark was Estadio Héctor Espino, named after a player nicknamed “The Babe Ruth of Mexico,” conveniently centrally located. Estadio Sonora is a long drive for the good people of Hermosillo. A long straight road, punctuated by temporary police checks. At the end of that long road is a statue of Héctor Espino. The only place to go from there is to take a left turn, on to the approach road to the stadium. Lots of parking lot areas, and in the distance, the brown roof of the park.
Outside the park, we began our search for the press credentials that were supposedly waiting for us. We asked at a gate, they sent us around the corner. We saw a couple of women who looked like they worked there, and asked them. They made a quick phone call, and told us to go to another gate. We chatted with someone on the other side of the gate. They didn’t have our specific passes, but, rather than being super strict or jobsworthy about things, gave us general reporteros passes; passes we used for our whole time there.
And what a lovely park it is. I’ve only been to a handful of baseball parks in Mexico, but I’ve looked at photos of a lot of the other ones, and the Estadio Sonora seems to be by far the best in the country. It’s like a nice minor league park. More or less 20,000 capacity. The roof is my favourite feature. It’s irregular, but not annoyingly wacky like Frank Gehry’s stuff. It has subtle peaks echoing the mountains that you can see from everywhere in the city.
We arrived in time for the second game of the day, Mexico vs. Venezuela. Cleverly, the Serie del Caribe schedule had Mexico playing in the evening every day. People who bought tickets got day tickets, allowing them access to the afternoon and evening games, but attendance for non-evening, non-Mexico games was tiny compared to the totally packed stadium in the evenings. And that evening, we were there for what was by far the best atmosphere I’ve ever experienced at a baseball game. Strikeouts were cheered like it was a World Series game. The people clearly loved baseball, and clearly loved being there to watch Mexico play baseball.
When I say Mexico, though, it’s not really a national team, in the way that a Mexican team would be in a soccer tournament. The winning team of the Liga Pacifico was the Yaquis de Obregón (who play in another city in Sonora, Ciudad de Obregón). They were Mexico’s representative in the Serie del Caribe. Same goes for the Puerto Rican, Dominican, and Venezuelan teams (Criollos de Caguas, Leones del Escogido, and Navegantes del Magallanes respectively). All but the Venezuelan team wore uniforms with their nation’s name on the jersey. Eric did some research and found that, for some reason, Venezuela didn’t stump up the cash for uniforms, so the Navegantes wore their own uniforms.
For most of our time there, we did the same thing with our days. We’d arrive before the first game, head straight up to the press area, and work on our drawing and writing. It was nice and cool and shaded up there, a good view of the field. Pretty much the perfect office: I could draw and watch live baseball at the same time. I very much enjoyed the experience of having a pass on a lanyard around my neck, and using it properly: working. It was good to have deadlines, to know that I had to do three drawings a day. And it was good to collaborate with Eric, too. Normally when I do work, the client tells me what to do with varying amounts of leeway. But this time, we were on our own. Our only brief was to capture the experience of the Caribbean Series. It’s a credit to Emma and Sports on Earth that they trusted us to do something that wouldn’t embarrass them. And I think we worked well together. It was nice being able to show Eric a drawing, and he’d find something to write about that fitted with it. And it was nice for Eric to say, I’m writing about such and such, you think you can find something to draw?
So after the first game, the press area would fill up with Mexican journalists, and the Wi-Fi would slow to a snail’s pace, and that was our cue to finish up our work, and get down into the park, and do the research-y part of our assignment: to experience the Caribbean Series. This is a fancy way of saying that we were gonna get a beer and hang out watching baseball. One thing we soon learned is that, despite having access to the whole park, the best place for us to experience the series, and in many ways, to experience Hermosillo, was to head straight to the bleachers, to the cheap seats. Seats in other parts of the park were numbered. And the games were sold out. We’d occasionally sit down for a while, and eventually have to move when the seats’ ticket holders turned up. In the bleachers, it was general admission. And we didn’t sit down once. The fun was to be had stood behind the back row of bleachers, where people milled around, and went to get more Tecate.
Every night, we would find ourselves suddenly chatting and laughing and drinking with strangers. People would hear us talking in English, give us a glance, catch our eyes, and off we would go. It was fantastic. The people in Hermosillo are amongst the friendliest I’ve ever experienced. We had beers bought for us. One guy in particular, grabbed my shoulder to prevent me going to buy beers, because he couldn’t have a visitor paying for his own beer. On our last night there, we met three lovely people, Jesús, his brother Luis, and his girlfriend Angela. After knowing them for about four innings of baseball, they took us for tacos, they let me get out of the car to throw up in the middle of a street, and they went out of their way to drive us home. That’s hospitality.
After having a couple of months where I’ve been generally feeling kinda shit about life, it was wonderful to have four days away from Mexico City, in this wonderland of béisbol, carne asada, and incredibly lovely people. I can’t remember a time in my life where I look at photos of myself and see a genuinely relaxed and happy person there. Hermosillo was amazing, and I can’t wait to go back for some Liga Pacifico games in the winter.
My friend Eric Nusbaum and I spent four days in Hermosillo, in the northern state of Sonora, where we watched a load of top notch baseball being played at the Serie del Caribe (Caribbean Series). Eric is a writer, I is a doodler, so we combined on five articles about our trip for Sports on Earth.
I will never tire of the feeling of waiting for a bus to go to a town I’ve never been to before. Leaving Placencia featured a lovely way of doing it, too. The place where I was staying was a few hundred metres from the end of the 20-odd km long peninsula, and the bus I’d be taking would go to the end, turn around, and pick up passengers along the way. It took nigh-on an hour to travel the length of the peninsula; so many people were scattered along its length, we were stopping and starting constantly. Most of the passengers were heading further north than I was, to Dangriga. I was getting off before then. When I bought the ticket form the conductor, I asked him to let me know where to get off so that I could get to Hopkins. He ignored my request, but thankfully, the guy sat behind me had heard me ask, and told me when to get up.
Hopkins is about six or seven kilometres off the highway. The bus stopped at the junction, I hopped off. There was an old guy stood around. I asked him if there were any buses soon. “In a few hours, yes.” So I started walking. I’d been warned about this, but figured it doesn’t hurt to ask. I plugged in my headphones, turned on “The Wall” and stomped along the side of the straight, sandy, road. I’d been told that the best way to get from the highway to the village was with a passing vehicle. It was hot. My shirt was drenched, and sweat was dripping off my face. Ten vehicles passed by before, about 40 minutes into my walk, and, as it turned out, about halfway along the road, a truck with an open flat back part (what are these vehicles called?) pulled up. A guy sat in the back gestured for me to get in. I took out my headphones, threw my backpack over the back door thing, and jumped in. The guy and I had a wee chat. He told me I’d come to the right place to relax. He was friendly. We stopped at a junction, pretty much the only junction in the village. The guy and I said goodbye, he wished me a good time in his town, and I chatted to the driver while another passenger got some stuff from the store. He asked where I wanted to go. A friend had recommended a place to stay. The driver, Johnny, told me it was nice there, and dropped me off right outside. Not to be, though. They were closed during the off-season to do some renovations, but the woman swinging in a hammock recommended another place a bit further along.
I traipsed along the road, ten minutes later saw the sign for Tipple Tree Beya, and walked up the stairs to ring the bell to see if there was a room. There was a room. About 40 dollars a night. Splendid. Two nights please. The room was one of three that faced out towards the sea. Small wooden rooms, with wood slats covering bug screens for windows. And a hammock on the deck out front. Perfect. After spending the last hour or so sweating buckets, I just dumped everything, put on my shorts and went out for a swim. Swimmy swim swim. Brain is there going, “hey relax, dude.” And it was nice. Two days here in Hopkins, then off to the western border, nip across to Guatemala to see Tikal. A couple of days there, then back up to Chetumal to fly back to Mexico City. The couple in the room next to mine were a lovely German couple. You really couldn’t ask to be sharing a hammock-y deck with nicer people. Spent some time in the hammock as the sky got darker, drank a couple of beers, and I was in bed by 11pm. It was still hot. I opened the window slats at the front and back of the room; no need to turn the fan on when there’s a lovely ocean breeze there to keep me cool.
With the windows open, a new room, thus new bed, I woke up around 5am. Just in time for the sunrise. The sky was all pink and dark purple. I walked down to the water’s edge. The husband of the woman who runs the place was raking the sand. He has the best job ever. Every morning, he does something nice and gentle and repetitive like raking sand while the sun rises over the ocean. Plus, he told me, it’s good for the back to spend some time each day walking backwards. Advice I have failed to heed, simply because I don’t have any beaches nearby, and walking backwards down the street would be mental. I had my iPod in my pocket, so I tried to draw a quick drawing of the sunrise. I did another a hour or so later. I did another 30 of them during my stay in Hopkins. It became a lovely ritual. To stop, have a look at the see, really look, and that flat block of water beneath that airy stuff changes colour so often. (Those drawings can be seen here.)
I had breakfast at a place called Innies. It looked a bit crappy from the outside. A concrete building painted pink and yellow with some kind of shower-strength leak coming from somewhere on the upper floor. Like a lot of restaurants in Belize, the glass doors and windows were tinted glass, so you can never really tell if they are busy or even open. It was open. Terrible instant coffee with what I think was condensed milk. I ordered an omelette, which came with beans and fry jacks, a local thing that’s basically like a puffy tortilla. The omelette had Cheez Whiz on top; a little daunting, but my gosh, it was delicious.
Lounge in the hammock, listen to music, read a bit, watch the grackles flying around, and squawking at each other. I like them. I like how strident they look when they walk, like, I’m. Going. Over. Here. They were brave, too. On the edge of the deck in front of the rooms were bowls of water for us to wash the sand off our feet. The grackles would hop up the steps and onto the edge of the bowl, drop big seeds in there to wash them, fish them out and fly off to have their snacks. Swimming, hammocking, swimming, hammocking. At one point in the sea, I realised that I only had a few vacation days remaining. Could I really be bothered to trek all the way, on three buses to get to the western side of the country to cross into Guatemala, change some money for a couple of days, come back, re-change money, just so I could spend the last day on buses all the way back to the northern border with Mexico? Nope. I chatted to the owner, two more nights please. Bingo. No more things to think about until I had to actually stop being on vacation. I borrow a bicycle and went for a ride to see what the rest of Hopkins was like.
I headed north, and after about 20 minutes of leisurely cycling, found myself at the top end of the village. On the beach, at a bar called Driftwood. I’d been told about this place by a guy who runs a bar/restaurant in Placencia, and it was as good as he’d said. They do pizza. Really good pizza, actually. It was pretty dark and empty inside. The guy who runs the place came out from the back room. I told him there was a few dogs, including a mean-looking pitbull/mastiff mix outside the door. He thanked me, cos she’d got out of his garden, and told me the dog was a sweetie. He gave me a menu, a beer, and I went and sat outside where the bar area has an open window and a, y’know, bar with stools. Not poop. High backless seats. We had a chat. He was, I guess, early 30s, originally from the northwest of England. The three dogs outside were all his and his partner’s. It was nice, in this country with so many stray dogs, to see people adopting some of them. One of them did a weird dipping-the-head motion every ten seconds or so. Apparently he’d had distemper, and the dipping was a tic he’d developed since then. He was a cute, friendly dog, though. A few afternoon beers and I was nicely buzzy. Cycled back to my room. Did a bit of swimming, hammocking, reading, and was truly knackered. At twenty past eight.
There was a big thunderstorm during the night. The whole room lit bright by the sheet lightning. Early to bed, so up before sunrise again. Same as the morning before. Watched from the water’s edge, had a wee chat with the raking man, did a couple of drawings, and then made a coffee in the drippy drip machine, after the Germans had given me half a packet of coffee that they didn’t need when they left in the morning. Back out on the balcony, and I had a chat with my new neighbour, a British woman from Newcastle. She could talk. I’d barely said hello before I was knee deep in her life story. Not that she wasn’t pleasant, you understnad. Although she did use the word “Chinaman” once.
I didn’t realise it at the time, but sat with my flip-flopped feet in the sand outside the pizza was a problem. I was bitten to fuck by sand flies. Mean little bastards. I estimated that I had about thirty bites, but when I counted, it was over seventy. Itchy. So very very itchy. I had a walk to go to a coffee place a bit later, they had Wi-Fi, and my willpower was weak. As it happened, when I got there, there’d been a power cut throughout the village, so no Wi-Fi, but I did get a coffee that had just brewed. I asked the teenage-ish girl who served me where I could get some cream for my sand fly bites. When she saw that both of my calves were covered in bites, her eyes widened and she said, “O! M! G!”
I walked back towards the room/hammock/sea. Stopped off at a place called Iris’ for some breakfast. Other guests from my place were there. We chatted. Dutch. Nice enough people. She was allergic to loads of things so ended up eating air for breakfast or something. Back to the same old swimming/hammock ritual for the remainder of the morning, until I fancied a change, so went for a wee ride up to a bar called King Cavassa Club near the centre of the village; that is, near where the road out of town is. A few beers in the sunshine, while the bored but pretty young woman who served me flicked through TV channels.
More swimming, and I think I got to the point, after two nights in Hopkins, where I was actually relaxed. In the water, not really swimming, my feet barely touching the sea bed, though, not thinking about anything other than the waves that I’d rise up to crash into a little bit. Kept on doing this. And after I’d been out there for 15 minutes or so, I saw a pelican dive bomb into the sea, and he/she righted him/herself and gulped down a fish. This was about 15, 20 metres away. I was bouncing as the waves pushed me up, the pelican just stayed still and let the waves pass underneath. The waves, though, were pushing him/her towards me. He/she didn’t seem to care. I stayed still, kept my arms under the water, and eventually, the pelican was about two metres away. It was amazing. we were that close to each other for maybe ten seconds. Then a few flaps of the wings, and he/she was off to get more snacks.
That night, the non-relaxing crept in. I woke up several times in the night thinking that I’d missed the sunrise. I hadn’t. It was still dark every time. Another lovely sunrise, though, slightly tainted by some guy a couple of house down using a circular saw before 6am. Another incredibly lazy day. Back at King Cavassa Club for lunch (stewed chicken, rice and beans). While I was there, a Hungarian family wanted to know when the next bus was. They asked in Spanish, and the waitress didn’t speak Spanish. She tried to tell them that the last bus of the day would leave at 2pm. It was 1.55pm. They somehow managed to have a vacation here without speaking English. They didn’t understand that they needed to get their arses into gear. The bus stopped across the street, so it’s not that far. But they’d just bought coffees. I got up in there, told them the story in Spanish, and they gulped down there coffees and got to the bus on time. I feel that that should be enough to get me into heaven if this God character really exists. I got up to pay for my lunch, and saw the guy I’d first met on the back of the truck when I came into Hopkins. He smiled, and said “Hello, Craig.” He remembered my name. I had not remembered his. We had a little chat and said goodbye. As I cycled back, I was heckled by a kid, “Hey, straight hair!” He and his friends giggled like crazy.
My last night in Hopkins, early to bed, awake at 4.40am. Plenty of time to make coffee and enjoy the sunrise one last time. Hopkins is a beautiful, sleepy place. Could happily have spent another week there. But it was time to leave. On the 7am bus. It was already packed. There are only a couple of buses a day, so, y’know. The conductor was young-ish guy, baggy jeans, a basketball vest over a t-shirt, Miami Heat cap, and, awesomely, a Hannah Montana backpack. It took about an hour to get to Dangriga, the next big town, where I had to get another bus. Stood outside the station, having a smoke, this guy comes up to me and asks if I wanted to buy some DVDs. He had about ten in his hands. I didn’t recognise any of them.
Then he offered me a CD, “It’s by P. Diddy!”
He asked for a cigarette. I gave him one. “Can I have two?”
“Can you give me a dollar so I can get a burrito?”
Tired of him, I just gave him a one dollar coin. A cab driver nearby rolled his eyes and asked why I gave him money. I shrugged.
The guy came back and said, “A burrito is two dollars.”
That’s not my problem, so, “Sorry.”
He then made sure I noticed that his blue shirt was a Snoop Dogg shirt. He pointed to the logo on the chest, then turned around so I could see a cartoon dog drawing on the back. He held out his fist. I bumped it with my fist. And then he left.
The bus from Dangriga that would take me to Belize City via the capital Belmopan was not a school bus. It was a Greyhound bus. With air conditioning, and seats big enough for adults. It was luuuuuuuuuuxury. Never in my life did I imagine a Greyhound bus would feel like luxury. A very pleasant journey. I enjoyed it on the way south, and I enjoyed it again on the way north. There was a sun halo for a while, too. But I needed to piss like a race horse by the time we arrived in Belize City. Off the bus, straight to the filthy bathroom. Utterly disgusting. I had my backpack on, so there wasn’t space to stand at the trough with two people already there. Had to use a stall. There was some sort of foul-smelling casserole in the toilet. I daren’t touch the handle to get rid of it. There were casserole stains on the wall, too, that seemed to have been put there with the intention of writing something. Graffiti told me that this was “THE SEX BATHROOM.” Other graffiti described things that could indeed happen in a sex bathroom, and in a country where most people are not white, there was graffiti that demanded that N-words should leave Belize. The floor of the bathroom was wet. I was wearing flip flops. I would spend the remainder of my journey wondering what the hell hideous things my feet now had crawling on them.
The next bus I needed would take me from Belize City all the way to Chetumal, across the border in Mexico. And as luck would have it, it was right there, filling up with lots of people. I nipped ’round to the back of the bus to avoid the queuers at the front. One spare seat, right at the back, next to the pile of luggage. I dropped my backpack on top, sat down, and spent the rest of the journey wedged between a whole load of luggage and a small old man with awesome, yet quite greasy, long hair. By the time got to Corozal, the closest town to the border, there were just a handful of people left on the bus. Me, an old Mennonite couple, a mother and her two toddlers, and a couple of German backpackers. We trundled towards the border. We all got off the bus to get out passports stamped exiting Belize. Back on the bus into the queue of traffic over the bridge that separated the two countries. As the bus sat there in the queue, we all got off and walked to go through Mexican immigration. The guy there barely looked at my face, didn’t say a word, scanned my passport, and I was back in Mexico. Eight-and-a-half hours on buses, and I need a place to stay. I had no idea at all where I would spend the night before my flight back to Mexico City the next day. But the bus passed a couple of places near the bus station. First one I went to, Costa Azul, was cheap, just 19 dollars a night. And I soon saw why. Basic. No towels. Less than half a roll of toilet paper in the bathroom. Horrible lighting. Plastic coated remote control. The people who worked there – seemed to be an extended family, various members of which were behind the reception desk at various times – were all really happy. To each other. Whenever I needed to ask a question, they suddenly stopped smiling and answered in a monotone, bored, manner. After all the travelling, I had no real desire to spend my one night in Chetumal doing anything other than watching telly with the air conditioning on. I’m not proud of myself, but I got a pizza from the Domino’s down the street, and settled in, watching “Hitch” and “Rush Hour 3.”
And that, aside from the scanning machines not working at Chetumal airport, and having my backpack searched by hand like a man artificially inseminating a cow, was my vacation.
The bus from Punta Gorda was, like most buses in Belize, an old U.S. school bus. It was hot as hell in there while we waited to get going. But, the journey north was only a couple of hours. I was heading to a place called Independence. When the bus pulled into the “station” (what seemed like someone’s driveway), there was a guy, as is often the case, targeting the tourist and insisting I take his taxi. Sometimes, I’ll go with it, but this time, I was in the mood for a walk. I had to get to a place where the water taxi would go across the lagoon to Placencia. I said no to taxi man, and walked. In the wrong direction, as it happens. I was walking in the exact opposite direction. Stupid, really, to think I would know where I was going in a town I’d not been to before, but I have a compass on my watch, and assumed that because Placencia is directly east of Independence, I’d be walking towards the water. Wrong. The lagoon curls around, so I should’ve not been heading south and east, but north. It was hot. I bought a bottle of water, chatted with the lady in the shop, and she told me where I needed to go. By the time I got to the water taxi place, I’d missed the 12pm water taxi.
The place was called Hokey Pokey. I bought a ticket for the next one, at 2.30pm. Two-ish hours to kill. Couldn’t really be bothered to go back out to the town and explore, so I sat there in the covered waiting area, as it started pissing it down. Which made me glad I’d missed the noon taxi: I would’ve got absolutely drenched. There were a few other people in the waiting area. A couple of them looked to be expressly ignoring the sign that said “NO LOAFERS.” The woman who was running the place looked like Proposition Joe. There was a Jackie Chan film on the ridiculously loud television. Everyone there, myself included, was entranced. The film was about diamonds or something. At the end, a hovercraft drove over one of the bad guys and all his clothes came off. Prop Joe found this hilarious and shouted, “his batty red!” Aaah, how the time flew by. Eventually, one of the loafers got up and shouted “Come on!” which was our queue to board the boat. We bombed across the lagoon, my enjoyment of the lagoon tempered slightly by having to hold onto my cap to stop it flying off. (My hair was just a mess underneath, and I was already feeling a bit self conscious after a less than satisfactory encounter with a mirror in the morning.) Twenty minutes or so later, we pulled up where water met some wooden planks supported by wooden poles, and it was time to find somewhere to stay. I’d been told of a couple of places that were reasonably priced, and headed off looking for the one that sounded best.
After a bit of a walk, I found the Sea Spray hotel, about 35 U.S. dollars a night. The Mayan receptionist was pretty and smiled a lot. Made me a little melty. The room was simple: bed, shower, toilet, unplugged fridge, fan. But it was only about about 20 metres from the sea. It was situated on the Sidewalk. The Sidewalk is technically a street because it is, apparently, in the Guinness Book of World Records as the narrowest street in the world. It’s about four feet wide. No cars would be able to use it. And there are signs saying that cycling is against the rules, so, not very street-y. I dumped my shirt, put on a clean shirt, and headed off. Walking down the Sidewalk, I heard “Hey white boy!” from behind me. I ignored it. “Hey brother from another mother!” It was an old-ish guy with dreadlocks. We exchanged general pleasantries, then he asked if I liked Bob Marley? I told him no, sheepishly. He wished me a good afternoon, turned around and left. (Later in my trip it dawned on me, after being offered a handful more times, that he was probably going to ask if I wanted to buy marijuana.)
Time for a beer. Went to the first place that would sell me beer, an open-sided bar called Barefoot Bar. They had Wi-Fi. So, moth to flame, iPod whipped out, and I started checking things. A few emails, some Twittering, some Facebookery, and checking on baseball scores. It was kind of like when you give up smoking, and then you have a cigarette, and it’s just rubbish. Tastes crappy and you’re full of self loathing. Really, what had I missed? Nothing.
I have said it before, and I will undoubtedly say it again, but white people are funny when they are travelling. Not all white people, tends to mostly be younger folk. In my experience, Belizean people are friendly, and will say hello on the street. You get into the habit of doing it, too. Walking along the Sidewalk, I passed a white guy, mid-twenties. I said hello, he glanced at me like I’d called his mother a whore and looked away. Dude: you are not an explorer. This is a tourist town. Seeing other white tourists may be spoiling your delusional thoughts of having discovered a pure gem in the wilds of Central America, but it doesn’t mean you have to be a cunt.
After a good, solid, twelve hours sleep, I was up and at ’em. There’s a coffee shop in Placencia now, called Above Grounds. It’s on stilts, so y’know, ho ho, funny name. Sigh. Decent coffee, though. Went there every morning during my four-day stay in Placencia, and spent my time using the Wi-Fi, and drawing. The next couple of days were pretty much all based around swimming in the sea, drinking, eating, lying down, repeat. The swimming schedule was retarded by not putting on sun block early on in my stay, and having to stay out of the sea when it was really sunny, and having to coat myself in aloe vera at all other times, but now, a few weeks later, I’ve still got a nice bit of a tan, so, swings and roundabouts. One of the benefits, though, was it meant that when it was really cloudy, I’d go swimming. One time, it rained while I was in the sea. That really is one of life’s greatest things, I think. Getting your head down as low as possible in the water and watching the water bounce Tic-Tac-shaped drops back off the surface.
I only spent two days at Sea Spray, they were fully booked for the next two nights I’d planned to stay, so found another place. A bit closer to the shops, bars, etc., a bit farther from the sea. But it had air conditioning. And I used the hell out of that. Not ordinarily a fan of air conditioning. I’ve never lived in a super hot part of the world, so my view of AC is probably different to someone who lives in, for example, Phoenix, Arizona, but I can’t imagine what it would be like to live my days like that. Cold home, cold car, cold office, only ever experiencing the real temperature in short bursts. But, I did spend the whole of my Saturday night with the AC on, lying on the bed in my pants, watching movies on the telly.
My brain was beginning to think it’d be nice to be back in a big city again. But, brain: you’re a dick. I wish I could properly relax and get rid of those thoughts. I did a decent job of suppressing them, but they still found their way through the gaps now and again. And as the holiday went on, the thoughts got fewer and farther between. And that really started properly, as I left Placencia. I waited on the road outside the hotel, jumped on the bus heading north, and an hour or so later, I was off the Placencia peninsula, heading up the highway, toward Hopkins. Which we will discuss in the next underwhelming blog entry.
Punta Gorda is a town. I’ve just sat here looking at those five words for a good ten minutes. It was going to be a longer sentence, but in the end, I just added a full stop. It is indeed a town. A fairly sleepy town. I had the express intention of doing nothing on my holiday. I wanted to do nothing but sleep, eat, drink, walk around a bit, do some drawing. And Punta Gorda was the perfect place to begin that. I purposely didn’t ask for the Wi-Fi password at the place where I was staying or elsewhere in Punta Gorda. I didn’t want to know. And that lack of access was delightful. Back here in Mexico City, because I have taken to using my iPod touch as the clock in my bedroom, the first thing I do pretty much every day, is press the button, check the time, and before I put my glasses on, before I do bathroom stuff, or have coffee, is check email, Twitter, Facebook, blah blah blah. It’s rubbish. Easily solved obviously: put my watch by the bed instead of the iPod, but when things are there, they’re more difficult to ignore. Being away from the Internet for five whole days was fantastic.
And waking up in the jungle was fantastic, too. Waking up in the jungle heat, the smell, and waking up to the wonderful coffee they serve at Hickatee Cottages; just spending the start of my day sitting on the verandah in a shirt, shorts, and flip flops, watching hummingbirds humming. Next up on my great lazy adventure: a walk along one of the jungle trails around the back of the cottages. Jungle is ace. Yes, there are tons of insects and you get sweaty and a bit uncomfortable, but I love that when I walk around, there is so much there, so much to look at, and to be aware of, that my brain stops whirring with other stuff. It’s not overly dramatic to say that there is a chance, when in the jungle, that you could die. Of course this is true about the street outside my house, your house, everywhere; but in the jungle, there are creatures that could injure or kill you. Knowing that however unlikely it is, there’s a chance that there could be a jaguar out there, is quite thrilling. I saw lizards, plenty of birds and insects, I could hear the sounds of howler monkeys. The trail, though, was kinda swampy after the rain in the night, so it wasn’t as long a walk as I’d hoped for. So it was back to the room for a shower, and then hopped on a bicycle to ride into town to find somewhere to watch the European Championships final.
I ended up at the northern end of town, at a bar called Waluco’s. This was the only time during my stay that I knew anything was going on outside of my immediate environment. I sat at the bar, had a few Belikin beers, chatted with the guys sat next to me. They were Dan and Antony. They were old school friends who still meet up for a drink now and then. One of them worked in construction, currently building a hotel further north in Placencia, the other was recovering from a stroke. He was only about my age. His right arm was pretty limp, but he was getting some movement back in his hand. He spoke about the work he did before his stroke as if he really missed it. He drove (piloted? captained?) cruise ships. We watched Spain beat Italy, I paid as little attention as my mental brain would allow to the scrolling baseball scores at the bottom of the screen. We bought each other drinks. In fact, a guy who dropped by to pick up some takeaway food was in a good mood and bought the three of us beers on his way out. An afternoon of drinking, a bit of a fuzzy head, a cycle back to the cottages, some drawing, dinner, and the realisation that when I was having breakfast in shorts and flip flops, I’d been bitten by a doctor fly.
The doctor fly, called a yellow fly elsewhere, is a vicious little fucker. Over the course of my two-week holiday, I was bitten eight times by doctor flies. Each time, the same reaction: the area around the bite starts to feel a bit tender a few hours later, then itchy, then starts puffing up like a balloon. I’d been bitten twice that first day in Punta Gorda. The bite on the top of my left foot was blowing up so big that the next morning, I couldn’t fit my shoe on. One of the other guests gave me a couple of Benadryl. I took one, and after having been asleep for nearly nine hours, felt sleepy again and spent another five hours in bed. I went out for a bike ride in the afternoon. No destination, just a ride around. Some guy asked me if we’d met early near the Catholic church. Nope. After ten minutes or so more riding, I saw him again. He introduced himself as Ivan, telling me he was sure we’d met. We hadn’t. I rode off, and later found out that Ivan is wont to do that with tourists. If I’d’ve stuck around chatting, he’d have tried to scam some money out of me. On the dirt road back to the cottages, there were loads of dead, crushed crabs. Apparently, they live inland and take the trip to the sea quite often. I saw a couple of them scuttling across the road on their back feet. Not walking like crabs normally walk. I’ve never seen crabs go two-legged.
Next day: nothing. Just did some drawing, some reading, a little walk, some insect bites, heat rash, a blister on my foot after not putting socks on before my walk. Same thing the next day, my last day in Punta Gorda. Spent a good chunk of the afternoon drawing on the iPad, listening to music, getting bitten by insects. It feels weird to be experiencing this after being a professional illustrator for over ten years, but those few days in Punta Gorda really made me love drawing more than I have ever done before. Specifically drawing from life, not from photos. It’s something I don’t do very often. And something I should do a lot more. The insects were getting pretty hardcore about halfway through the drawing I was doing, so I took some photographs and decided to finish up in my room, but it just wasn’t the same. The colours were, of course, different, and the jungle-y garden looked different. (The drawing I was doing, btw, is the third one from the top here.) So I covered up as much as possible, covered the rest of me in aciete de citronela, and went back out there. Half an hour later I was done. And so were the doctor flies. A couple of bites, one on the hand, another on the thin area of skin between my jeans and the hem of my t-shirt that must’ve been exposed for a few seconds.
I would be leaving the next day, so packed up my backpack (I like being organised and ready to go), and about to take a shower, stood looking through the window at a couple of awesome woodpeckers pecking wood on a tree behind my room. They had red heads. They were lovely. Kate, Ian, and I went out to have a few beers and some food at a place in town called Asha’s. It was a wooden place on stilts over the water. It was nice to spend some time with them away from the place they run, and work at seven days away. There’s a joy in having friends in places around the world. It’s great to know you can go and visit them, catch up, and that. But it’s always sad knowing you won’t see them as often as you’d like.
Next morning, I said goodbye to Kate, and Ian gave me a lift into town to get the bus to my next destination.
Belize is a country I have come to know relatively well, in as much as one can know a place by being a tourist there. I just returned from my fourth trip to the country, and have now spent a total of six weeks in the country. There are times there when I wonder why the hell I keep going back. But there are also times when I imagine that I’d enjoy spending a longer chunk of time there to let the place really sink in. (The lack of decent Internet speeds, and the measly 30-day tourist visa are probably the main reasons for not really bothering to investigate what it would take to spend three or four months there.)
The last time I visited, I looked for flights direct from Mexico City to Belize City, and there were none, so ended up taking a ridiculous route via El Salvador and Costa Rica. This time, I did what I should’ve thought about doing before: flying to Chetumal, about 4 hours south of Cancún, and about 10 km from the border with Belize.
In the last few months, I’ve taken brief trips to Puebla and Oaxaca, and both times, enjoyed that feeling of having my backpack on, going to the bus station and waiting then heading off. I enjoy bus stations. They’re totally better than airports. That first day of my trip, though, had the potential to be a relatively stressful one. I didn’t have much wiggle room when it came to flight or border crossing delays if I was to get to the Corozal (the closest “big” town across the border) to get a bus to Belize City that would allow me to get the last bus of the day to my ultimate destination, Punta Gorda, right in the south of Belize.
The trip started off in the worst possible way: my upstairs neighbours (I don’t know their names, but lets call them Cunt and Twat) were having one of their idiotically loud parties. Despite previous complaints, and an assurance from them that they’d give me prior notice to any more of their parties, they keep on failing to bother. I’ve been in this apartment for three-ish months. They’ve had seven all-night parties in that time. And I’m not talking about a regular loud-ish party; I’m talking full-on massive sound system and lights, and going on until well into the next day. It was already 1.30am when I got home from having a few drinks with friends, so no point in even contemplating the possibility that they would turn the music down. I turned right around, and went back to my friend’s house, had another couple of beers and got three-ish hours sleep on the sofa.
For some reason, I decided to not take a taxi to the airport. Took the subway. A bit of a delay on the first two connections. A bigger delay on the next one. Arrived with about ten minutes until the flight closed. Got through the queue to check in with the gracious help of people in front of me in the queue. (The airline I was using doesn’t have individual desks for specific flights.) Exhale. The flight spent a wee bit too long waiting to get onto the runway, but in the end, it was a smooth one, arriving in Chetumal on time.
The airport in Chetumal is small. And, the good thing about those airports is the way you walk off the plane down some stairs and you can feel like the Beatles or a president for a few moments. Plus, arriving in a town on the Caribbean coast, you get the brilliant blast of heat. My backpack was one of the first on the carousel, out the door, “taxi!,” and straight to the Mexican side of the border. Got the exit stamp on my passport, then did what I’d been looking forward to ever since I booked the flight: walked across an international border.
There’s about a kilometre or so between the place where you enter/exit Mexico and the place where you enter/exit Belize. The Mexico border dudes are closest to the border. Just a hundred metres or so walking along the edge of the road until you are on a bridge crossing a river, the actual border between the countries. On the Belize side, there’s a few food places, a shitty-looking mall and a casino. I guess you’re technically in Belize there, but as I’d exited Mexico, and not yet had my passport stamped to be allowed to enter Belize, where am I at that point? I mean, if Belize were to refuse you entry, and then Mexico did the same when you tried to return, what would happen to you? Where would you be?
Something else that exists before you reach the immigration thingy, is taxi drivers looking for business. Friendly guy honed in on me, telling me he’d take me to Corozol for 20 US dollars. (In Belize, US currency is valid. One US dollar is equal to two Belizean dollars.) I bullshitted, told him a “friend” had told me it was 20 Belize dollars. He said he’d split the difference and take me for 30 Belize. After we’d agreed on that, I found out he wasn’t the driver. He was just the pimp. A Latino guy was the driver, and his pal, an old fella with greying dreadlocks sat in the front, me in the back. They drove me to the immigration point. This was a few drive through areas, like toll booths, and an office off to the side. I got out of the cab, went into the office. I was the only visitor in there. The immigration guy asked why I was there. Holiday. Noted that I’d been before. I love it here. Asked about the London Olympics. Don’t really care that much about it. Then we had a wee chat about the Belizean team. He didn’t know how many athletes would be going. (I just checked: they have just three competitors attending: Kenneth Medwood in the men’s 400m hurdles, Kaina Martinez in the women’s 100m, and Eddermys Sanchez in the men’s 66kg judo.) Kinda got the feeling he would happily have had me standing there chatting for ten minutes. A quick buzz through customs, and I’m back in the cab, chatting with the two chaps. Both of them awesome. We talked about the Queen’s jubilee. Belizeans seem to love her, and I found out why. Back in the day, Guatemala wanted Belize. They thought it belong to them. British Honduras as it was then known, had its borders protected by British troops. Thus, the Queen-lovin’.
The worrying about the tight wiggle room with getting to where I wanted to go turned out not to be anything to worry about. I was well over an hour early, had a Coke at the bus station, and got on the 11am bus from Corozal to Belize City. Buses in Belize are old American school buses. Like the ones you see in films. They don’t have a huge amount of leg room, or luggage room (it’s all just stashed in a wobbly pile at the back where one of the seating benches is missing), and they’re not overly comfortable. And they have music playing really loud. (During the journey we heard a lot of reggae. And in the middle of all this proper reggae: “All That She Wants” by Ace of Base.) The bus set off, but we’d not got more than half a kilometre before we were stopping to pick up another passenger. This was repeated quite a lot. If you want to get the bus, you don’t need to go to a station or a bus stop, you just stand at the side of the road and get on.
The bus stopped in Orange Walk, the only major town on the route to Belize City. It filled up to the point where there were ten or so standing passengers. A guy sat next to me. An Indian guy who’d been living in Belize for a couple of years. I could tell, as I sat in the window seat, that he kept looking at me. Like he wanted to talk. And when I glanced over at the other side of the bus, he started chatting. I took my headphones off, had a brief get-to-know-you chat, who where why what. He asked about night clubs in England. Pause. Then he asked if there were any “naked clubs” in England. I told him, that, yes, there are places to see naked girls dancing in England. He told me there were none in Belize. I asked him if there were naked clubs in India. He looked shocked that it was even necessary to ask such a question. No, there were not any naked clubs in India. Then he rambled a bit about the conservative nature regarding such things in India, and out of nowhere, told me the law was very harsh in India regarding rape. Err, what the fuck!? There was a moment where I wondered if I was sat next to a rapist. The conversation was very stop-start. We’d discuss a topic, be silent for a minute or so, then he’d come back with another question.
“Have you ever had sex with a black girl?”
I have not.
“Don’t do it in Belize…. baaaaad.”
Pause for a minute.
“Have you ever had sex with a Mexican girl?”
I have, yes.
“Did you pay for it?”
Three hours after leaving Corozal, the bus pulled into the station at Belize City. It’s not the nicest place in the world, the bathroom was disgusting, and I got the feeling that straying too far from the outside of the station would have me walking around neighbourhoods that I shouldn’t be walking around. I’d missed breakfast, only had a mini packet of crisps and a coffee on the plane, so ate a burrito at the bus station. It was about 90% tortilla which was welded to the greaseproof paper it came wrapped in. An hour or so later, the bus heading for Punta Gorda pulled in. There was the polar opposite of an orderly queue to get on the bus. A couple of younger fellas jogged to the back of the bus to open the back door and bypass the queue. I followed them and got a seat. The bus pulled out of the station, rammed full of people. As we got onto the street, someone outside the bus was shouting at the driver to stop. A girl of maybe 11 or 12 was running to jump on the bus. One of the passengers shouted the girls name. It was her mother. She’d gotten on the bus without one of her children.
Soon after we left Belize City, about eight hours since I left my apartment, I started to get that feeling. That lovely travelly feeling. My mind was emptying of all the normal stuff. Just staring out of the window at the landscape, the houses, the small villages. We headed inland first to the capital, Belmopan, and then back through a more jungle-y landscape towards the coastal town of Dangriga. It was lovely looking to see jungle again. There’s very little in life that makes me feel something inside like seeing jungle. There was obviously no air conditioning on the bus, and with the windows open, the smell of another country, another landscape blew in. A smell of heat, humidity, trees and plants, smoke from fires in villages. The bus was half empty after we left Dangriga. Now heading more or less directly south, this final part of the journey was long and dark. After being on a full busy bus all the way from the very top of the country, with ten or so remaining passengers heading to Punta Gorda (the most southern town of any size), it was really beginning to feel like heading to the last tube station on the line. Which it was. Around 9.30, the landscape became familiar. The barely-lit highway turned into yellow sodium-lit street heading into Punta Gorda, a town I’ve been to three times before. It was a feeling like that when, as a child, you fall asleep in the back of the car, and wake up when you are nearly home, and you know that you will be in bed shortly. I got off the bus in the centre of Punta Gorda, got in a cab, and head a couple of kilometres out of town to Hickatee Cottages, where I’ve stayed every time I’ve been in the town. It was fantastic to be back, to see Kate and Ian, my friends who run the place, again. Sixteen hours of travelling, and I was sat on the verandah, having a beer, chatting away. And then, it was time to sleep. Sleep in a lovely small cottage with the jungle all around and a thunderstorm that shook the building, and rain hitting the leaves of the jungle. When I can’t sleep normally, I’ll go to YouTube and find one of those rain sounds videos, dim the computer screen, and fall asleep. I did not need YouTube, I had the real thing.
It’s been a couple of week since I got back from Belize. As part of my efforts to not spend much non-drawing time using my electronic devices, I made notes about the trip with a pencil in a notebook. Thus, it’s not just a matter of copying and pasting blog posts about the trip. But, that’s kinda nice. It means I read my notes, and relive things a little, extending the vacation feeling just a little bit. More about the trip over the next week or so.
More finger painting here.
Drawing done whilst flying over the Campeche coast on Saturday.
More finger painting here.
On the last day of my holiday, I decided to cross the border back into Mexico so I didn’t have to rush around super early in the morning, trying to get back across the border in time for my flight from Chetumal back to Mexico City. I stayed in a very cheap place (£12/€15/US$19 a night). The room was accordingly shite.
More finger painting here.